New Zealand Marist History


The Society of Mary (Marists) was founded by Father Jean Claude Colin in Lyon France in 1836 and Pope Gregory XVI Commissioned them to bring Catholicism to the Western Pacific. This was the first Catholic Religious Order and the first Catholic Missionaries to arrive in New Zealand, and so the early history of the Society in New Zealand is inextricably entwined with the arrival of Catholicism

The Order consists of ordained priests and professed brothers. It is not to be confused with the Marist teaching brothers founded by a Marist Priest, Fr Marcellin Champagnat who are a separate group who arrived later to teach in primary and secondary schools throughout New Zealand.

Pompallier and the early Marists
Protestant missionaries were already establishing in what Rome called the “Vicariate of Western Oceania”.

Bishop Pompallier as Vicar Apostolic, and the first group of Marists set out 1836 as the first apostles, Bataillon and Br Joseph-Xavier got off at Wallis, Peter Chanel and Br Marie-Nizier stayed at Futuna, one the way Claude Bret died at sea. Fr Catherin Servant and Br Michel were the first Marists to arrive in New Zealand with Pompallier in early1838.

Arriving in the Hokianga they soon moved across to the Bay of Islands and later south to the new capital, Auckland. Pompallier, Servant and other Marists very quickly learnt Maori and English. Over time concentration and success with Maori gave way to ministry to settlers as well.

Pompallier would have been a Marist and was present when the others took their vows but was already a Bishop and appointed to the Vicariate.

The Wellington diocese
Over time however, differences over authority between Pompallier, Colin and Colin’s men developed. In 1850 Propaganda divided the country into two dioceses, Auckland where Pompallier would remain, and Wellington where the Marists would move under Bishop Philippe Viard. The division made Wellington comprise the southern half of the North Island and all the South Island.

The Marists soon transferred and again established the church in local areas. Two Marists had set out for Wellington in 1842 but they were lost at sea, shipwrecked. A lone Capuchin Jeremiah O’Reily arrived in Wellington in 1843 sponsored by Catholics among New Zealand Company migrants.

Comte had been sent by Pompallier and established a Mission to Maori in Otaki in 1844. By the mid 1850s the church was established in Wanganui, Wellington, the Hutt Valley, the Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay and Manawatu and soon after that in Taranaki.

Akaroa which saw the first Marists in 1840 and remains today New Zealand’s only French settlement must have been a difficult mission. Comte, Tripe and Br Florentin returned North frustrated in 1842. Seon, Brs Euloge and Bernard did not last much longer when sent there by Viard in 1850.

Nelson school

Fr Garin’s Nelson School.

The Nelson mission at the top of the South Island had been established by Fr Antoine Marie Garin and Br Claude Bertrand and included Marlborough until 1864 when Blenheim received its first resident priest. Francis Redwood the son of English immigrants was one of Garin and Bertrand’s first pupils at what became a famous school in Nelson. Recognising his talent Redwood was sent by Garin and his parents in 1854 to study in Lyon and later Ireland. (When Viard died, Redwood succeeded him as second bishop of Wellington.)

Viard sent newly arrived Chataigner to Christchurch in 1860 and within a year Chervier joined him. Finally a mission to last was established in Akaroa and other missions fanned out over the Canterbury plains. In 1869 Chataigner moved south to Timaru and thus the South Canterbury mission was begun.

On his one and only ad limina Viard asked for his territory to be divided and so in 1869 Moran was translated from the East Cape Colony to be the new Bishop of Otago and Southland in the Diocese of Dunedin where Moreau had been the first missionary. While Viard had sent some itinerant diocesan men to the West Coast area they mostly got into strife so in 1868 he replaced them with Martin and later additional Marists.

By 1887 Rome had further divided the Diocese of Wellington carving Canterbury and the West Coast of the South Island into a new Marist diocese to be called Christchurch. The first bishop was John Grimes (an English Marist) and at the same time Redwood became the Archbishop and Wellington the Archdiocese. Thus central dioceses were Marist and in the north, Auckland and the south, Dunedin dioceses were under diocesan control. Two years later in 1889 New Zealand was erected as a Province and John Leterrier arrived to be the first provincial.

By 1889 as well as establishing the church Marists were involved in many different works: Formation, Education, Retreats and Mission preaching. Over time these developed into full apostolates.

The Mission among Maori
In some places and times particular Marists carried on this mission often against great odds. Heroes in many ways, they struggled with others who did not understand and did not appreciate the good work achieved. Some early Marists were particularly successful. Others believed as did many settlers in New Zealand that Maori were dying out. So in 1879 after pleading with the Marist hierarchy by the founder of the Sisters of Compassion (Suzanne Aubert) additional Marists were sent from Lyon to minister to Maori: Soulas, Delachienne, Vibaud, Melu, LePretre, Lacroix, Cognet, Maillard, Pertuis, Ginisty. Others sent for this task were redirected to the “mainstream” church.

The Marist presence in New Zealand was initially as a mission to Maori. It was only later when European settlers and soldiers (many of whom were Irish Catholics) came to New Zealand that the priests started to minister to the spiritual needs of Europeans.If we were to look back and ask – what happened to the original mission to Maori there would be a variety of answers and excuses.

Popular Maori missioner Fr Venning, going the extra mile.

Popular Maori missioner Fr Venning, going the extra mile.

In terms of the Church heirachy, Redwood was at best half-hearted in his support and O’Shea was at times negatively vitriolic even to the point of banishing “Delach”, who had done so much for Maori in Otaki, from the diocese.

In 1917 the first New Zealand born Marist (Venning) was appointed to the Maori Mission. Nearly a hundred priests had trained at Greenmeadows but Venning was the first appointed.

While it can be seen that the province was not heavily involved in the Maori Mission the various missions were becoming parishes and two types emerged. Some were handed over to a growing number of local clergy. We are still largely speaking of the Wellington and Christchurch Dioceses. While they were in a sense still “Marist Dioceses” with the development of the Province, the bishops were no longer in charge of Marists, and the parishes (and for that matter the bishops) were increasingly diocesan.

This of course is a natural process though at times such changes are met with feelings, which range from regret through disappointment into murkier fields such as blame and animosity. A similar process also happened in various outposts and mass centres, they became autonomous parishes that were usually handed over. In general, though, the Society and the two dioceses worked well together. A number of “Marist Parishes” were designated as such by Propaganda Fide and entrusted to the Society “in perpetuity”.

Education ministry

St Patrick's College Wellington

St Patrick’s College Wellington

Redwood greatly valued his Marist education in Nelson, France and Ireland and though most Missions established a primary school. He was determined to see secondary schools and in 1885, St Patrick’s College, Wellington opened and thus a dedication to secondary education was begun for New Zealand Marists. The first teachers at St Pat’s were Irish Marists from the college at Dundalk, other Irishmen joined them as well as some early scholastics including Tom O’Shea who was later to be Redwood’s co-adjutor and successor.

The Marists have played a major role in the education of young Catholics in New Zealand, and the 8 colleges they established and have been heavily involved with include:

St Patrick’s College Wellington, 1885

St Bede’s College Christchurch, 1911

St Patrick’s College Silverstream 1931

St Patrick’s College Timaru, 1938 (latterly Roncalli College)

St John’s College Hastings, 1941

St Augustines College Wanganui, 1944 (latterly Cullinane College)

Hato Paora College Feilding, 1947

Chanel College Western Samoa, 1962

Pompallier College Whangarei, 1971

An Australian connection
As the population drifted north, Auckland became short of clergy so in 1924 Bishop Cleary invited the Society back to staff parishes at Mount Albert and Whangarei.

There were moments of trans-Tasman cooperation too. A number of Australians joined the New Zealand province. The mission band spent 1911 in Tasmania and Bernard Quinn was sent to Gladstone in an attempt to help his TB. Quinn wrote to Rome on his return suggesting that the Society would never implant in Australia if the houses there remained under Oceanian administration and so St Pat’s Parish Church in Sydney, Villa Maria in Sydney and Gladstone parishes were incorporated into the province.

In 1925 Glenlyon became the Australian base for a Mission Band and when the province of Australia was erected in 1938 some Kiwis stayed in the new province.

Formation of priests and brothers
Formation in what we now call Greenmeadows or “the Mount” or “the Mission” in fact started in Wellington in 1889. It moved a year later to Meeanee in Hawkes Bay and later, after flooding, buildings and all were dragged by traction engine onto the hillside at Greenmeadows. This was a great new site but the Napier Earthquake on 3 Feb 1931 destroyed the chapel and the lives of 7 students and 2 priests.

Original Seminary in Wellington

Original Seminary in Wellington

The new code of canon law (1917) made it imperative that a separate novitiate be found and Highden at Awahuri near Palmerston North was erected with first novices in 1924. Previously the novitiate was at the Mount where novices lived as a separate group.

Many Marists who passed through the Seminary have gone on to distinguished careers as academics, teachers and parish priests. There have been 5 Marist Bishops to date, Bishops Viard, Redwood, O’Shea, Grimes and Mariu (New Zealand’s first Maori Catholic Bishop) and several more in the Pacific Island Missions.

Formation at Greenmeadows was all encompassing and apart from “camping” at Waimarama a nearby beach, in holiday times and a couple of trips home during one’s course the Mount was fairly enclosed. There are stories of saints and tyrants, grape-picking, the wonderful and hard working brothers, funny tales and legends that grow in the telling. Anyone who trained at Greenmeadows and Highden knows what that means even if they cannot explain what it was like.

An outwards view
In 1928 the province sent its first missionary to Samoa. Over the years a huge number followed. Visiting Oceanian bishops and holidaying missionaries encouraged volunteers, and later the Mission Society at Greenmeadows kept the fire alive in the hearts of many. The early death of Emmet McHardy in the Solomons and the inspiration of Chanel and the early Marists called many to devote their lives to Oceania at that time synonymous with the Foreign Missions.

When in more recent years Pakistan, South America, Africa, the Philippines and North Dakota and Thailand opened up as Mission fields there were nearly always New Zealand Marists involved.

Parish Missions also featured in New Zealand Marist life. Redwood and Marists of his time were began this ministry. Wearing the traditional blue cape, sash and preaching crosses they were an imposing lot. In 1909 the first actual band formed eventually residing in Temuka. As well as the sortie into Tasmania recorded above a great number of missions were carried out in Australia, beginning with St Pat’s and Hunters Hill but spreading over time throughout a large area and to Fiji.

In 1922 the mission house moved next to what is now the Wellington Cathedral, and later to Island Bay and then what we now called Marist Centre (Wellington). In the late 1920s Glenlyon and Mt Albert were established as Mission Houses. As well retreats to religious continued to be a feature of the Mission Band well into the 1980s.

Futuna began as a men’s retreat house in 1958 and ran for forty years. Its architecturally significant chapel built by our brothers was central to the place. Thousands of men and later women spent a weekend there as the team presented a new theme each year. Religious and priests came for retreats and direction, annual Marist retreats were regularly held at Futuna and it was a huge success in the archdiocese. A band of brothers cooked, cleaned, and welcomed retreatants – working together with a lay staff and volunteers.

In more recent years when Futuna was sold the team who had been there moved to what had been the provincial house at Hobson St and began the retreat and spirituality centre called Emmaus featuring the Wells of Living Water course. Now Emmaus has become a centre for Marist Spirituality and the sharing of the Marist charism with lay co-workers.

Many ministry choices
Other ministries were always part of the province. New Zealand Marists distinguished themselves as chaplains in both world wars and as military chaplains. Others have been in chaplaincies; to prisons, alcoholics, hospitals, schools, convents and to other religious orders.

The Marist Messenger our Monthly magazine has a wide circulation both locally and abroad and has been published for more than 75 years. Third Order, Marist Laity and Marian Mothers groups have a large following throughout New Zealand and in some ethnic groups as well.

In the last 25 years there has been a huge overhaul of institutions, schools, formation, houses and community life, and a significant restructuring of what and where we minister. No longer are many of the old institutions part of the province. We generally live in smaller groups in smaller houses.

We have largely withdrawn from teaching in schools and many parishes, preferring more remote bicultural, multicultural parishes; formation has moved to Auckland and is shared with the Australian province and the Diocesan clergy.

Yet despite the increasing age of the New Zealand province, many of its younger men still give themselves generously to the Society’s mission districts.

Shorter-term ministries have arisen for particular needs in places like the Coromandel, and the Cook Islands. New ministries have opened up in response to a very different culture that rarely comes to church. The changing face of Catholic New Zealand means we now work more closely with Asian and Pacific Island cultures. If we were to sum up our ministries today they would be:

Other interesting aspects
Some interesting, perhaps often overlooked, yet significant contributions made by Marists to New Zealand include:

  • Being present with Bishop Pompallier at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, where Pompallier was responsible for gaining religious freedom for all in New Zealand.
  • In 1851 Lampila and Brs Basil and Florentin (John) established the Mission in Hawkes Bay. The Mission winery dates from this time and are New Zealand’s oldest established Winemakers.
  • Fr David Kennedy wrote a textbook called ‘Natural Philosophy for Junior Students,’ which became a standard text throughout the British Empire. From the proceeds of this book he established an astronomical observatory in Hawkes Bay, bought several telescopes and his students took the worlds first photograph of Halley’s Comet in 1910. From 1905 to 1909, he operated a Meterological Station at Meeanee and he trained the Reverend Daniel Bates, the New Zealand Governments first Meterologist.
  • Support for Mother Mary Aubert during her early years in Hawkes Bay from the Marists was vital in her setting up her Order of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassionwith their mission to Maori on the Whanganui River, the Homes of compassion and the pioneering work in developing medicines using native herbs and plants.
  • The Marist Fathers were badly affected by the Hawkes Bay Earthquake in 1931 with the deaths of 2 priests and 7 students, plus the destruction of a number of their buildings.
  • Another little known link between the Marists and New Zealand history is in the field of literature. Fr Frank MacKay was a personal friend of James K. Baxter and wrote his biography. Fr John Weir was also a friend of Baxter and edited his Collected Poems.
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